The furious downstairs neighbor

At first we virtually lived at the Ash Grove, because for a long time we had no place else to live. It was a very nice home, if a bit—uh—homey. It was the kind of place that felt perfect to some, horrifying to others. People who really loved folk music thought it was paradise. People who shoot their cuffs and twitch up their trouser pleats were afraid a cockroach might fall on them from the rafters.

Of course there are lots of cuff-shooting trouser twitchers who love folk music—I didn’t mean to polarize, God knows there’s enough of that going around. And there were lots of signs that the club was legit: a nice glass display case in the foyer, a red velvet cordon for crowd control, a regulation ticket booth, theater seats, an elegant menu, and waitresses (yep, that’s what they were called and no apology) who didn’t talk or take orders during performance. Full lights up in those (cockroach-filled?) rafters and a light booth. Fine sound system.

In those days Ed would book an act for a month at a time, as did a lot of clubs. My first gig there was a month, and the main act was THE TARRIERS. With BOB CAREY, CLARENCE COOPER, and ERIC WEISSBERG (who later did ‘Dueling Banjos).

I loved the Tarriers. I hadn’t known it was okay to like ‘folk groups,’ since in those days Kingston-Trio bashing was a favorite sport in certain circles. Why? Because they were popular. Because they were popularizing folk music, which was considered to be the sacrosanct property of a select group. Because they did an ad for Coca-Cola. Or some damn thing. But here was this folk group, the Tarriers, and here was me liking them, even playing songs with them in the dressing room. Yes, I had a lot to learn.

When the month was over, we kept on living at the Ash Grove. For one thing, #1 was now running lights and being part-manager. For another, there was that business of, was Ed Pearl (now ‘Ed’) going to manage me or wasn’t he? I was proving to be stubborn and quarrelsome, nor was Ed himself known for a Za-Zen approach to life. Was I going to cooperate in any way with anyone trying to help me? Was he really going to set me up with a voice coach and a guitar teacher? Was the Ash Grove even going to survive, in view of wavering finances and militant political arsonists?
[Keep in mind that this is all my version of how things were. I would like to remind you readers that if you know things were different, or think they were, you are more than welcome to weigh in.]

Now I want to go back for a minute, to that Israeli song I did at my audition. One of the ways I used to while away my not-in-high-school hours was to listen to the ORANIM ZABAR, which featured composer DOV SELTZER and singer GEULA GILL—from Israel, of course. I had their Folkways record, and I wore it pretty thin.

This became my Jewish period. Their music, still very beautiful to me, filled me up to the brain cells with desert sand and ancient rites, which meant I had to be a Jew, which was fine since I wasn’t anything else. And surely the songs would provide me with a tradition, a past, a way of defining myself. So I set about learning those songs, and while I played and sang them, my sister and our friend Avril danced. I have a picture of this happening at the old Fugazi Hall, which now is the Beach Blanket Babylon but then was a favorite venue for beats and Wobblies.

After I was married, I settled on trying to perfect one of those Israeli songs so it could be part of what I was hoping would become a repertoire. ‘Bona habanot’. Bona, bona habanot, maherenah lish’ov’ something something—I practiced it forty times a day for a while (that loony-bin mindset I was talking about) until late one afternoon I heard a loud, angry knock at the door, more like a bunch of whams. It was my downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged, portly, florid, gay Irishman I’d never spoken to, and he was so mad his eyes were protruding out of his head.

“Over and over and over,” he yelled. “OVER and OVER and OVER, the same damn song, always the same song, over and over until I’m about gone out of me mind!”

I told him I was awfully sorry, that due to a lifetime of relative insensitivity to the pain of others I hadn’t realized I was bothering anyone, but that I thought it was a beautiful song and I really did want to get it right. And he said that by this time I had killed it from grinding it into the soil, and him too. Over and over and over.

So I asked him, not knowing what else to say, if he would like to come in and have a glass of wine.

“Oh,” he brightened. “A glass of wine then? I would be delighted. Oh, yes!”

An hour and three large glasses later he left, even more florid. We were old friends now. He said he loved the song, was it in some kind of foreign language then, and that I could sing it as often as I wished. He would be looking forward to it. He loved Jewish music. In return I told him he and his roomie could use the old wringer washer I had set up down in the yard. Such is the curative power of music—oh, no, wait, it was wine.

And lo, while I was semi-resident at the Ash Grove, Ed booked Oranim Zabar for a month! I got to talk to them, and to hear them every night—except the nights when Geula had a bronchial infection and couldn’t sing, which meant that when she came back, no one was allowed to smoke cigars in the first four rows of the audience. And I know you are thinking, what? They could before?

Then came the Appalachian acts. ROSCOE HOLCOMB. CLINT HOWARD. DOC WATSON. THE STONEMAN FAMILY. And other acts that weren’t Appalachian exactly but did that kind of stuff I was gradually beginning to recognize as a semi-viable form of musical expression.

This took a while; I was a genuine prejudiced priss-pot, not easily budged, and besides, I was now Jewish. But my mother had luckily inducted me into mountain music without my knowing, by playing JOHN JACOB NILES, over and over and over. Also, she had a rendition of ‘Wake up, wake up, darlin’ Corey,’ to her own piano accompaniment, that slayed me as a child; when she got to the part about ‘The revenue officers are coming, gonna tear your still house down,’ I would dissolve in blubbering tears. That still house. Gone, forever. Appalachian music can still do that to me.

And THEN there were acts that didn’t come from Appalachia but did ‘that kind’ of music. Like—THE COUNTRY BOYS. Tune in next week.


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Traveling musician

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